Hype. Every UEFA Champions League final has hype around it. Why not? The best clubs in the Europe (and therefore, in the world) come face-to-face. It’s one of the most watched sporting events in the year, telecast to over 200 countries, with over three hundred million people watching it. This year, it’s extra-special. Barcelona and Juventus face off in Berlin, and they’ve both experienced remarkable seasons.
Barcelona had a poor 2013-14 season, by their standards. They lost the domestic club competition, Copa del Rey to their arch rivals Real Madrid thanks to this incredible goal by Gareth Bale (some say Bartra is still running). They were ousted from the Champions League in the quarter-final round by eventual runners-up Ateltico Madrid, their worst run in the competition since Liverpool eliminated them in the Round of 16 in 2006. They failed to defend their league title at home after Godin equalised at the Nou Camp, enabling Atletico to break the dominance of the Big Two. To further rub salt on their wounds, Real Madrid won the Champions League. Manager Gerardo Martino left the club, and newly elected club president Bartolemeu was widely condemned. Other problems included a transfer ban be imposed on Barcelona, investigation into Neymar’s shady signing revealing disturbing details about his father’s orgy, and Leo Messi scoring “only” 41 goals for the season.
Juventus won the league comfortably in 2013-14, further asserting their dominance over Italian clubs. With the Milanese clubs suffering, Antonio Conte’s Juventus amassed a record 102 points in the league. Roma, runners-up with 85 points, never posed a threat. In other competitions, their performance wasn’t as good. Roma killed them off with a lone goal in the quarter finals of the Coppa Italia, and they didn’t even make it out of the groups stages of the Champions League. Although Juventus did manage to reach the semi finals in the Europa League, a club of this size wasn’t performing acceptably in Europe. Conte’s famed 3-5-2 system wasn’t working outside Italy. The club seemed to be stuck. They were winning the league comfortably every year since Conte took over without any real opposition, but failing in other competitions.
Widely tipped to be the next Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique’s stint at Roma after leaving Barcelona B wasn’t entirely convincing. He left Roma after they failed to qualify for any European competitor that season. He then guided Celta to a ninth-place finish and the newly elected Barcelona board offered him the top job. Enrique quickly got to work by offloading the under-performing Fabregas to Chelsea, Sanchez to Arsenal (who had had a career-best goal scoring record the previous season) and surprisingly, Bojan to Stoke City (literally the “next Messi”). Lucho then proceeded to do what Barcelona never do – buy competent defenders. Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermalean were the signings. Luis Suarez, arguably the world’s best striker, arrived from Liverpool but was suspended for three months for deciding to have Breakfast at Chiellini’s. Perhaps one of their most crucial signings of the season, Ivan Rakitic was bought as a replacement for Fabregas. The stage was set for the new season.
Barcelona began the season with comfortable wins, and led the league early on. This was exactly how Martino began the previous season too, so the jury was still out on Lucho. Immediately, the change in playing style was evident. While maintaining the Barcelona ethos of possession-based football, it was clear that the Catalan club were moving towards a more direct style of play. Although they still dominated possession matches, there seemed to be a greater emphasis in moving forward – a departure from the build-up play we have grown so accustomed to seeing. In addition to this, Lucho implemented his infamous squad-rotation policy which he used extensively at Celta. This was expected to keep the squad at their toes. Neymar had grown accustomed to playing in Spain this time and he was combining well with Messi.
All seemed to be going well. A 3-2 loss to PSG was seen as nothing more than a minor roadblock, but this was a warning sign of the problems to come. Playing a high line and encouraging the fullbacks to support the attack, Barcelona were susceptible to counter-attacks, especially from the flanks. A team which hadn’t conceded a single goal in the season, had let in two in the first half. Possession dominance did little here and Barca’s build-up play wasn’t very convincing in breaking down the PSG defence.
After a falling-out with club president Agnelli (reportedly over transfers), Antonio Conte decided to leave Juventus after three successful seasons at the club. He took over as the national team’s manager. Controvertially, Massimiliano Allegri was chosen to replace to Conte. Allegri previously managed Milan to a league title in 2011, but Milan since then had regressed. Moreover, Conte was a fan favourite and a rival club’s manager taking over as Juve’s manger did not go down well with the fans. It was widely felt that Pogba and Vidal stayed put in Turin simply because of Conte. Allegri’s arrival could change that. Simply winning the league title would not be enough – Juve’s squad was sufficient for that – he needed to do more.
As is with any managerial change, fans were divided over Allegri’s appointment. Most of them were convinced about his incompetence. It was believed that the Milan squad was certainly not so far behind the league leaders to have such a poor showing in the Serie A. Allegri’s arrival would disrupt the harmony Conte had so carefully built into this team, and it would be far too long for the players to trust him, if at all. Few, however, did point out his ability to deal with dressing room egos and the fighting spirit he instilled in Milan to rise from dire situations. Running a club with an eccentric owner like Berlusconi and a bizarre policy of signing aged players on free transfers is not particularly easy or engaging. Most opinions had been based on the final six months of Allegri’s tenure at Milan, which was terrible. The Old Lady was on the verge of a fourth consecutive Scudetto, and it seemed that this dream would not be achieved. At his official unveiling, Allegri was pelted with eggs and spat at.
The season began with a tense 1-0 victory over Chievo Verona. The squad was still adapting to Allegri’s tactics. New signing Patrice Evra had a poor start to the season, bringing his poor defensive form from Manchester United with him. However, fears of being unable to defend their league title were quickly obviated as Juventus stacked up wins. The Vidal saga was successfully resolved, and Pogba was also certainly staying. Allegri, however, was criticised for persisting with 3-5-2. One of the biggest problems with Conte’s Juventus was scoring goals. The team generally contributed together to score, but there was no star forward. This changed with Allegri as Tevez was having a superb season. He scored crucial goals, such as the lone goal against Milan at the San Siro, and a brace in a thrilling 3-2 victory over Roma. Perhaps the most memorable goal of the entire season was Tevez’s outstanding solo effort in a 7-0 thrashing of Parma. The Argentine forward picked the ball up in his own half, expertly dribbled past three defenders, and slotted the ball into the bottom corner. The Juventus stadium stood up in rapturous applause as Tevez had recreated his own version of Maradona’s famous Goal of the Century. Juventus had found their star forward in a 31-year old with his bulldog-like approach.
Barcelona’s outstanding league from papered over the cracks, as Lucho continued to experiment and rotate. Nearly a month later, Barcelona were absolutely destroyed in El Clasico. It was Suarez’s debut game, and we all had the answer to the question everyone was asking, “How do you fit Messi, Suarez and Neymar in a team?” The answer was “you cannot”. The dream combination wasn’t meant to be. Problems from the PSG game resurfaced as Barcelona’s defence was unable to cope with the pace in the counter and was left exposed at the flanks. Isco and Modric pulled the strings from midfield, and James put in a MotM performance. Messi was completely marked out of the game. Enrique lost the tactical battle, and that’s putting it politely. He tried playing Mascherano and Pique together for the first time, and the latter had a shocker. Bizarrely, their best defender, Mathieu, was moved to left-back. Xavi and Iniesta were under-par, and Busquets was clearly unfit. Lucho was afraid to change things and his ineptitude in big matches was showing. He failed in 2/2. Had Ronaldo been in better form, the result could’ve been much worse.
El Clasico was followed by a defeat at the Camp Nou to Celta, and saw Barcelona slip to fourth position.
In the Champions League, things were looking rosy. Suarez had finally got his first official goal and in their final game vs PSG, Barcelona won 3-1. Lucho dropped the traditional 4-3-3 to adapt an unorthodox 3-3-1-3 – a hugely attacking formation with Messi hanging behind Neymar, Suarez and Pedro. Mascherano had a wonderful game in midfield, but the problems at the flanks still persisted. Despite the result, Barca really didn’t create too many chances. More importantly, it showed a drastic change in tactics.
Back in the league, after a few wins, Barcelona began 2015 with a loss to Moysie’s La Real. The fantastical partnership of the front three was simply not working. The club immediately went into meltdown mode, as off-pitch problems escalated. A tiff between Enrique and Messi saw the forward retaliate by – and I’m not making this up – following Chelsea on Instagram. The club seemed ready to sack Enrique who had seemingly lost the dressing room. Zubizarreta and Puyol stepped down from their board posts and Bartomeu called for early elections only a year after being appointed as President. Real Madrid, meanwhile, had gone on a massive winning streak and were threatening to storm to the league title. This was the darkest period of the season, and was a test of character for the entire club.
Allegri started the Champions League campaign with a win over Swedish club Malmo. However, away losses to Atletico Madrid and Olympiacos put further progress in Jeopardy. When the Greek club came to Juventus, Allegri dropped 3-5-2. He adapted the 4-3-1-2 formation, with a three-man midfield comprising the brilliant Marchisio at the base of the trio. His enhanced workrate enabled Pogba and Vidal to attack more freely. This proved crucial for Juventus as earlier seasons have shown that both are capable of scoring goals from midfield, having been top scorers in the previous two seasons. The most striking feature of the new system was the lack of total reliance of the midfield to support the attack. Llorente and Tevez found it easier to break down defences, and the previously inefficient wingbacks now provided more to the team as fullbacks. The new system witnessed the rebirth of Juventus playing exciting, free-flowing football instead of just grinding out wins. A 3-2 win over Olympiacos was fun, and the new system was here to stay after the 7-0 rout against Parma.
Juventus sat at the top of the table four games into the season, and did not lose their spot. While Roma was on their tail with the gap between the clubs being one point in January, Roma stuttered as Juventus romped on.
Juventus finished second in their group after a tense draw against Atletico. Their 10 points put them just a point above Olympiacos, and Juve scored only 7 goals in 6 matches. Their European troubles were far from fixed, but Allegri had made this team his own. This may not be like previous seasons. They faced Dortmund in the first leg at home. While persisting with the midfield diamond, Juventus were able to hold off pressure from the German side. Oddly for a home team, Juve played on the counter. The narrow midfield did leave wide spaces, but Dortmund never really took advantage of this. Nevertheless, Juventus were lucky to win 2-1, as Dortmund looked the better side. The return leg saw Juventus execute the perfect away performance. Disregarding Klopp’s jape of an Italian team coming for a draw, Juventus comfortably win 3-0. Allegri switched to 3-5-2 25 minutes in, when Pogba was injured but this changed nothing at Juventus continued to defend superbly. Tevez’s early goal enabled The Old Lady to defend and then pick Dortmund apart on the counter. An impressive 5-1 win on aggregate.
Juventus began their Coppa Italia campaign with a comfortably 6-1 over Hellas Verona. Parma almost held them to a draw when big-money signing Morata scored in the dying minutes. This added to his previous crucial goal against Dortmund in the first leg. One of Juve’s most interesting games came in the second leg of the semi-final of the Coppa Italia. Fiorentina handed them a defeat at home, but Juventus came back strongly in the second leg. Without Pogba or Tevez, a victory seemed difficult to achieve. This is where Allegri’s genius showed. His surprising inclusion of Matri paid off as the latter scored the opener. If it wasn’t evident before, this game was conclusive proof that Marchisio is the most important member of the squad. A product of their youth system, Marchisio showed unmatched understanding of the game and kept the passes flowing with his supreme footballing intelligence. Vidal and young Sturaro were effective in shutting down any Fiorentina attack. Yet another surprising inclusion, Pereyra doubled the lead for Juventus. A 3-0 away win set up a mouth-watering finale against Lazio, but Marchisio would miss out due to his booking.
Juventus followed this by beating Monaco 1-0 over two legs in tense encounters. Monaco had shown throughout the campaign that they were a tightly-knit defensive unit and Juventus found it hard to break them down. In the company of giants such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern, Juve were the “easy draw”. They were eventually drawn against Madrid, and how wrong the Italians would prove everyone…
A tense week later, Barcelona convincingly beat Atletico 3-1. A clear shift in philosophy was further evident in their 1-0 victory against Atletico in the Copa del Rey. Ateltico tried to pressure Barcelona and break down their passing moves – a tried-and-tested method that had worked over the years, but not anymore. Enrique’s men dealt with the pressure by dropping the traditional methodical build-up and cheerfully launching balls forward. Instead of overloading the centre, the full backs were given freedom to lead the attack from the wings. Perhaps the most surprising move was Messi’s shift to the right, to accommodate Suarez in the centre. The individual skills of the trio worked wonders as Barcelona were tremendously successful in moving the ball forward rapidly.
Following the win against Atletico in the league, Barcelona would lose only one more game in the league. Enrique had abandoned squad rotation and settled on a fixed first team and implemented his tactics more rigidly. In the second El Clasico of the season, Barca won 2-1 with an outstanding performance from Pique, who had resurrected his form. Strangely, Barcelona’s goals came from a long ball and a set piece – unusual ways for them to score.
Messi was in his best ever form. Although not his highest goalscoring season, his influence in games was more pronounced than ever. In a systematic dismantling of Manchester City, he nutmegged everybody and their mother and put in a stellar performance. Barcelona hadn’t played such crowd-pleasing football since the times of Ronaldinho. Lucho had found a way for MSN to work. Barcelona met Pep’s Bayern in the semi-finals of the Champions League and successfully avenged their 7-0 thrashing two seasons ago. One of the goals in the first leg included Messi shuffling inside the box, causing Jerome Boateng to stupidly fall down, and gently chipping the ball over Neuer to score a delightful goal. Keep in mind that Boateng and Neuer are currently the best in the world in their respective positions.
The league title was secured with a win against Ateltico with the lone goal scored by Messi at their home ground – a poetic end considering the previous season’s events. Messi followed this up by scoring an outrageous individual goal against Bilbao to win the Copa del Rey.
With the beginning of May, Juventus were staring at a treble. A 1-0 win over Sampdoria gave them their fourth Scudetto. While not the record-breaking 100 point season they had last time, the fans did not care. Three days later, Morata returned to haunt Madrid, as he scored the opener versus his former club. Juventus won the first leg 2-1. A week later, Real Madrid faced a rigid defensive setup at the Bernabeau and could only salvage a 1-1 draw, knocking out the defending champions at their own home ground. The goalscorer who knocked them out? Morata. In his first season, Allegri had created history. This was Juve’s first Champions League final since 2003. Fittingly, this year also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the horrific Heysel stadium disaster where 39 Juventus fans never returned from Belgium.
Juventus beat Lazio in extra time with Matri scoring the winner against all expectations. Their tenth cup win was labelled as their own La Decima. Allegri was moved to tears as his players celebrated and fans chanted his name. Chants of “Grazie Allegri” echoed across Rome as 60,000 people revelled in his achievement. What a way to win the fans’ hearts.
Praise for Messi has flown from around the world, with the general consensus being he is not from this planet. Neymar has shown that he is the successor. Messi has mentored Neymar the same way Ronaldinho mentored the young Argentine. Suarez has been integral to the attack as well. When not scoring goals, he constantly makes surging runs, drawing defenders towards him. His central positioning creates ample space for the other two to work their magic. In the build-up to the final, the trio have combined to score a total of 120 goals. Irrespective of the outcome of the final, Barcelona will finish the season with a win percentage of over 80 – a staggering statistic. A win for Barcelona will clinch yet another historic treble for the Catalan club, one which will have been achieved after a shift in philosophy and proof that the club has evolved beyond traditions.
Allegri has become only the third coach in Juventus history to win the domestic double. No one has one the treble for them. In a world where Italy is seen as a failed powerhouse of yesteryear, Allegri has done the impossible and brought Italian football back into the limelight. A win in the CL final will easily be Juventus’s most remarkable achievement after the horrors of Calciopoli.
The defensively unshakable Juventus has the potential to throttle any attack thrown at them. The offensive powerhouse of Barcelona has an array of methods to dismantle any defence. This is a classic case of unstoppable-force-meeting-immovable-object. For the first time since 2010, both finalists stand a chance to win the treble. Both clubs have overachieved this season as they defied all expectations to reach here. Both debut managers will want to announce themselves at the big stage.
This will be Xavi’s last match for Barcelona. The Catalans would love to gift one of the old guard a wonderful parting gift. GiGi Buffon, one of the best keepers of all time, has never won the Champions League, and would want to avenge the horrors of the penalty shootout in 2003, which of the source of much pain for him. Moreover, the Serie A has become a weak league, with no club posing any major threat to European giants. A win for Juventus will send shockwaves about the community.
If anything, you should watch this simply to observe the Suarez/Evra clash. Chiellini, unfortunately, will not be served.
Who do I think will win? Common logic dictates Barcelona. They’ve amassed what seems to be the greatest attacking trio in the history of football. They have a solid, in-form midfield. Juventus lacks star players, but has a lot of young players motivated to win. They are – and I cannot stress this enough – a defensively outstanding unit even with Chiellini out. Barzagli and Bonucci will be solid at the back. My only concern for them is, Barzagli will not be completely fit after returning from an injury. They’re still prone to attacks from the wings. Clear underdogs, but this seems to be their story all season. They were written off even before the season began and no one predicted them to go past Madrid and Dortmund. Perhaps the Italians have a surprise up their sleeve…